How 3D Printing Is Revolutionizing Surgery

One of the most-common ways professionals use 3D printing is as a method to create rapid prototypes of potential products. But the ability to produce quick, affordable, and precise models can have a much bigger impact than getting the fit of an iPhone case just right. Over the last year, doctors have started using 3D-printed body-part replicas to help them prepare for complicated surgeries that they might not have otherwise been able to perform.

For doctors, capturing 3D models of surgical sites is already part of normal medical-imaging procedures, but printing those images allows doctors to see the sites with more clarity than ever before. The typical treatment for kidney cancer, of which there are 64,000 new cases in the U.S. each year, is surgery. The procedure is extremely delicate and must be completed quickly. Earlier this year, a team of doctors at Kobe University in Japan converted CT (computer tomography) scans of tumor-containing kidneys into 3D-print-ready models. Practicing on 3D models has allowed doctors to more-precisely target the affected areas, and cut the time that they must restrict blood flow from 22 minutes down to 8. As of April, the team had produced individualized scale kidney models for ten patients.

In more extreme cases, practicing on scale 3D models gives doctors the confidence necessary to operate on otherwise inoperable tumors. Surgeons at the Hospital Sant Joan de Deu in Barcelona, Spain had been through two failed attempts to remove a child’s tumor before they decided to try working with a 3D-printed likeness of the tumor. The patient has a common childhood cancer called neuroblastoma, which forms in nerve cells in the adrenal glands (which sit above the kidneys), chest, spine, and neck.

Doctors used a multi-material 3D printer to produce two models: a replica of the tumor with surrounding organs and a version of the patient’s abdomen without the tumor, so they could see what he should look like after a successful surgery. The team practiced on the 3D model for about a week-and-a-half before successfully removing the tumor. The hospital has since commissioned 3D models for two more patients.

Credit: Hospital Sant Joan de Deu

Credit: Hospital Sant Joan de Deu

In some instances, 3D prints can offer surgeons insight that might change their surgical plans for the better. Cardiologists at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center study and treat congenital heart disease in children. After 3D printing a model of a three-year-old patient’s heart last July, doctors Matthew Bramlet and Karl Welke realized that they could perform a surgery that would leave the child with two ventricles (the main chambers of the heart), while the previous plan would have left him with only one. According to Welke, traditional imaging techniques, including MRIs and echocardiograms, give doctors only vague shadows of what the heart looks like; 3D printing, on the other hand, presents a level of detail of that’s much closer to what doctors will actually encounter in the operating room.

Bramlet’s ultimate goal is to build a Library of Hearts that other doctors can use as a reference for congenital heart defects. He’s asking for pre- and post-op CT scans and MRIs of defects, which he will upload into a database of 3D-print-ready models. Other cardiologists with access to a 3D printer (ahem, or a 3D printing marketplace like Shapeways) can reproduce them.

3D Printed Bone Model

Right now, most of these hospital-based 3D prints are pricey and/or require partnership with another technical institution to complete. The neuroblastoma team in Barcelona worked with Polytechnic University of Catalonia. Meanwhile, making a 3D-printed at Kobe University can add as much as $1,500 to costs. So ingenuitive doctors are turning to more-affordable DIY methods to replicate necessary body parts. Mark Frame, a doctor in Glasgow, used freely available 3D modeling software to convert CT scans of a patient’s fractured bone into a print-ready model. He uploaded his design to Shapeways and received a scale model of the forearm bone within a week and for only £77 (about $132). A scale model would have otherwise cost him around $1,200.

Often doctors are unable to experiment with new techniques freely, as time, cost, and availability work against them. But the increased accessibility of 3D printing through services like Shapeways is removing all of those barriers in one fell swoop, giving practitioners—and their patients—chances they’ve never had before.